Looking back on Dodgers' days playing in Coliseum

Thursday morning, as my plane was in its final approach to LAX, I saw something that nobody had seen -- not until the last few weeks, anyway -- in nearly half a century: a baseball diamond laid out in the southwest end of the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Coliseum is best-known as the home of USC football (since 1923) and the Summer Olympics in 1932 and again in 1984. Most baseball fans may be pardoned for not knowing (until these last few weeks, anyway) that for their first four seasons, the Los Angeles Dodgers played all their home games in the Coliseum.

But they did. It's not that they didn't have another option, while waiting for their modern home in Chavez Ravine to be built. The Dodgers could have played in old Wrigley Field, longtime home of the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League (and today, perhaps best known as the home of the television program Home Run Derby). Wrigley held roughly 22,000 fans, not many fewer than the capacity in San Francisco's Seals Stadium, where the Giants played their first two seasons after accompanying the Dodgers from New York to California.

But that wasn't what Walter O'Malley had in mind when he moved the Dodgers to California. He planned to play in the vast Coliseum for two seasons before moving into his new ballpark just north of downtown Los Angeles. That two seasons turned into four seasons, however, and a great deal of history was made in the meantime. Here are just a few of the highlights (mostly from the first couple of seasons, and leaving aside Duke Snider's attempts to throw a baseball out of the Coliseum, and the huge crowds during the '59 World Series) ...

Opening Day

Carl Erskine ranked behind only Don Newcombe among the Dodgers' postwar pitchers. By 1958, though he was only 31, his career was clearly on the wane, as he'd managed only 66 innings in the previous season. Nevertheless, he got the assignment for the Dodgers' first game in their new home.

"Opening Day was a little surprise to me, because I was toward the end of my career. I had some arm trouble and all that. So Alston called me in, told me I was going to start the opener.

We had played in San Francisco, and then we came to open in L.A. Jim Davenport was the leadoff hitter for the Giants and he'd had a real hot spring, and then he'd had a hot series in those three games in San Francisco. So Walt says to me, "Here's what I want you to do. Get a strike on this kid. He's a rookie, he's hot. I know you don't do this much, so I'm not going to ask you; I'm going to order you. I want you to get a strike on Davenport, then I want you to flatten him. We're going to welcome him to the National League.

I'm pitching to Johnny Roseboro. First pitch was a fastball strike, right down the middle, he took it for strike one. Then Roseboro gave me the knockdown-pitch sign, and I did throw a good knockdown. His bat went one way and his cap the other and he hit the ground. He sat up, dusted himself off, and on the next pitch he singled off the screen in left field. I looked over at the bench, and Alston just shrugged his shoulders, like, "What are you going to do? This kid's hot."

Indeed he was. Davenport came up again in the third inning and again he peppered the left-field screen (but again had to stop at first with a single). And in the ninth, Davenport again hit the ball to left, doubling off the foul pole.

We had eight box seats between home plate and first. And we would take other performers. Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Neil Simon. Everyone wanted to go and see the Dodgers. That was the great place to be in Los Angeles.

--Actor Milton Berle

That knocked Erskine out of the game ... and Davenport's magic, apparently. The Dodgers still led 6-4, but reliever Clem Labine was touched for a triple by the Giants' next hitter, Willie Kirkland. On Davenport's way home he'd missed third base, and was out on appeal. Kirkland would score a moment later when the shortstop erred on a Willie Mays single, but Mays would be stranded on second base and all those fans went home buzzing.

The Stars

From 1926 through 1957, Hollywood had its own team: the PCL's Hollywood Stars, and if you wanted to see movie stars at the ballpark, the Stars' Gilmore Field was the place to go. But with the arrival of the Dodgers, the Stars were forced to move (to Salt Lake City, ironically enough). Where would the stars go? To see the Dodgers, of course.

Carl Erskine wasn't all that impressed with the size of the crowds in the Coliseum, because he'd pitched in World Series games before 70,000 fans in Yankee Stadium. He wasn't all that shocked by the shape of the playing field, because he'd pitched in the middle of many battles in the Giants' horseshoe-shaped Polo Grounds, back in New York. But all the stars ... "There were a lot of celebrities there," Erskine recalled last week. "I looked over in the second or third inning, and three or four of our guys were looking over the dugout, back into the stands, because there Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, Lana Turner, Jeff Chandler ... There were movie stars scattered through the crowd."

Third baseman Randy Jackson spent just half a season in Los Angeles, but that was plenty. "We used to sit on the dugout, and not face the field," he says. "We'd look up in the stands, and everybody'd say, there's so and so, there's Doris, there's so and so. And I think a lot of these guys if you'd ask 'em in the fourth or fifth inning what the score was, they probably didn't know."

Don Newcombe didn't last long, either; two months into the '58 season he was 0-6 and the Dodgers traded him to Cincinnati. Nevertheless, he too remembers the star power in the good seats: "It was something to come out of the dugout and look behind your dugout and see Bing Crosby, and Nat King Cole and his wife Maria; they were great Dodger fans and good friends of ours. And to see Humphrey Bogart, and to see the movie stars who just loved baseball, and eventually they loved the Dodgers."

Milton Berle, then one of the biggest stars around, tried to buy a piece of the Dodgers when they moved west. Rebuffed, he settled for season tickets. "We had eight box seats between home plate and first," he said, a few years ago. "And we would take other performers. Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Neil Simon. Everyone wanted to go and see the Dodgers. That was the great place to be in Los Angeles."

The Catcher Who Wasn't

Famously, one Los Angeles Dodger never got a chance to play in Los Angeles.

Roy Campanella, who built a Hall of Fame career in Brooklyn, was slated to continue as the Dodgers' No. 1 catcher after the move west. But roughly a month before spring training, Campanella was paralyzed when his car hit a patch of ice and skidded into a telephone pole. He would never walk again.

But on May 7, 1959, he did take the Coliseum field for Roy Campanella Night, featuring an exhibition pitting the Dodgers against the Yankees. As Glenn Stout describes that evening, "Over 93,000 fans packed the Coliseum. Another 20,000 or 30,000 milled around outside the park. Police had to stop general admission sales on three separate occasions to push fans back from the ticket booths to keep them from getting crushed."

The final count was 93,103 tickets sold, with the Dodgers' net proceeds going straight to Campanella (according to Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers asked the Yankees if they would like to contribute at least a portion of their take, too; the Yankees respectfully declined the wonderful opportunity).

Before the game, Campanella was wheeled to home plate. That was merely the warm-up. As Stout writes, "In between the fifth and sixth innings came the most poignant moment of the evening. The lights were turned off, and 93,000 fans lit matches and cigarette lighters in a silent tribute, bathing the field in a soft, golden, almost celestial glow."

Erskine describes that moment as "one of the most dramatic showings of affection for a ballplayer that ever happened." Which might be the understatement of this young century.

There are overstatements, too: many of Campanella's teammates maintain that he'd have challenged the record books if he'd played in 1959, considering how many of his fly balls in Ebbets Field would have carried the left-field screen in the Coliseum.

With all due respect, it may be said that the Dodgers were (and are) remembering a different Roy Campanella than the one who would, absent his paralysis, have played his home games in the Coliseum. From 1950 through '55, Campanella averaged 30 home runs per season. But like most catchers, Campanella suffered the ravages of time as he entered his middle 30s, and in 1956 and '57 he'd hit 20 and 13 home runs.

It's certainly possible that the Coliseum would have boosted Campanella's power output. But an ambulatory Campanella in 1958 wouldn't have broken his own, personal record (41) for home runs in a season. Let alone the Babe's.

Moon Shots

In 1958, their first season in the Coliseum, the Dodgers ended up in seventh place, their worst finish since World War II. The fans didn't seem to mind, as the Dodgers sold nearly two million tickets (oh, so that's why O'Malley didn't want to play at Wrigley Field). They did a lot better in 1959, though, thanks in large part to Wally Moon, a left-handed hitter who figured out how to take advantage of that screen in left field.

"I decided to shoot for the screen with what I call a calculated slice," he said, shortly after the Dodgers won the 1959 World Series. "It's simply a matter of bringing your hands closer to the body and slightly delaying your swing. You keep the end of the bat cocked for a split second after the hands have begun to move, and at the last possible moment you flip the end of the bat at the ball. That's all there is to it."

Well, it wasn't quite that simple. Moon didn't hit his first Coliseum home run until May 20, his second until June 15. In mid-September, though, with the Dodgers locked in a desperate battle for the pennant with the Giants and the Braves, Moon hit six home runs in six days ... and thus the "Moon Shot" was born. Moon finished the season with 14 homers in the Coliseum, and five on the road. In 1960, he hit only nine homers at home, but rebounded with 14 in '61. And he's been famous in Los Angeles ever since. Thanks to that screen in left field. And a fortuitous last name.

Moon turns 78 next week. He, like many of his old teammates, will be at the Coliseum tonight, and has expressed some interest in trying for one last Moon Shot. Here's hoping he gets it. But even if he doesn't it, I suspect there will be plenty of festivities on hand. There will be movie stars, maybe even more than there were in 1958. There will be something like 115,000 people in the stands, shattering the still-standing record set by Roy Campanella night for an American baseball game. And don't be surprised if the Dodgers have come up with some sort of tribute that will echo that given to Campanella nearly 50 years ago.

Rob Neyer writes for ESPN Insider and regularly updates his blog for ESPN.com. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com.